You could make the argument, a convincing one, that the Denver Nuggets have never known the good graces of almost-superstardom since a certain rookie from North Carolina State chose the ABA over the NBA in 1975 and signed with our Nuggets. What unfolded during the next 3 years was an ABA Finals appearance in 1976 (ABA's last season), 50 wins in 1977 and a trip to the NBA Western Conference Finals in 1978. The best three year run of basketball in team history.
The Denver Rockets/Nuggets never came closer to the top of their respective leagues than they did when David Thompson was flying through the air. A 6' 3 1/2" scoring juggernaut who could leap higher than anyone during than era. As the NBA was becoming more obscure, Thompson was the superstar of the league and in 1979 he signed the biggest contract in professional sports.
One of the most remarkable things about Thompson was his ability, as such a small size, to leap so high. The legend is he could touch the top of the backboard. He helped pioneer the NBA Slam Dunk Contest during the ABA All Star game in 1976 (Thank you former Nuggets legendary executive Carl Scheer). During the 1977-78 Thompson and George Gervin had an epic competition for the NBA scoring title, leading to Skywalker scoring 73 points on the final night of the season, while Gervin Scored 63 beating the Nuggets star by .07 points to claim the scoring title.
Thompson was the rising tide that lifted the boats. With those Nuggets teams, Denver led the NBA in attendance all the way through the 1978 season. You could argue that Thompson was one of most popular athletes the city of Denver has ever seen for a very brief period....then it was gone. From 1975 to 1978 Thompson was well and truly a player with superstar talent. Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan. Then cocaine abuse derailed his career, and in reality never quite made it to superstar level and this was pre-David Stern emphasis on stars. In reality, those Nuggets teams with Dan Issel, Bobby Jones, Skywalker and coach Larry Brown represented what could very well be the pinnacle of Nuggets hoops.
The greatest "What-if" in Nuggets history. The Denver Nuggets are coming into their 40th season in the NBA and 49th as an organization. This lack of superstar has haunted the team, both with the national NBA media/fans and the people of Denver.
Carmelo Anthony was the closest we came to achieving that kind of national star, but Melo wasn't ever able to duplicate what Thompson did in his first three seasons. When Melo forced his way out of Denver in 2011 the Nuggets have been searching for that next star ... or even better yet their only superstar. The Nuggets need the 2016 version of David Thompson
The Nuggets position in Denver is largely due to not having their version of John Elway. Imagine Denver Broncos history if Elway didn't force a trade from the Baltimore Colts in 1983? Imagine if the Colorado Avalanche didn't come to Denver with a ready-made Stanley Cup championship team? Where would Nuggets history be if Thompson eschewed drugs and Scheer didn't trade Jones for the corpse of George McGinnis in the 1978-79 season?
With the retirement of Tim Duncan, it has occurred to many that the quiet big man represented a small market team in San Antonio with distinction for 19 years and 5 championships. Yet, San Antonio was graced by The Admiral David Robinson and George Gervin before that. While Alex English was a star and arguably the "best" player in Nuggets history (being the highest scoring player of the 1980's helps that considerably) he never had that superstar, national name and appeal that Thompson did. Carmelo was great but not superstar great. Dikembe Mutombo was a great defensive player but was never a superstar.
The Nuggets need their John Elway. Their Tim Duncan. Do the players who are on this current roster have what it takes to get the Nuggets to that level? We have to hope so. If Emmanuel Mudiay or Jamal Murray or Nikola Jokic turn THAT corner the city of Denver will come back.
Just have to hope ...